A Practical Guide to Sapa, Vietnam
If there was one thing I kept reading over and over again during my research for Vietnam, it was, “Don’t miss Sapa!”
Honestly, I had no idea what Sapa looked like or why it was so special before planning our trip. And although a quick Google search showed me some nice rice terraces and wooden houses, I wouldn’t really know the answer to these questions until we were on the bus back to Hanoi.
What is Sapa?
Sapa is a mountainous region that sits at the very northern tip of Vietnam, located just below the Chinese border. The larger surrounding area is known as the “Tonkinese Alps” and hosts the highest point in all of South East Asia: Fansipan Mountain. It was first developed as a tourist destination during the French colonial period and later fell out of interest until the tourist floodgates opened up again in the 1990’s. Sapa is home to a large number of Vietnamese ethnic minorities, the chief two being the black H’mong and the red Dao.
What Makes Sapa So Unique?
Everything about Sapa is incredible, but if I had to choose, it was the local people who really made the region shine as one of the highlights of our Vietnam trip. Members of various hill tribes will guide you around the landscape and through their villages, and invite you to stay in their home. You play with their kids, pet their dogs, eat their food, and learn about their lives as a whole. Most of the locals have never been farther than Sapa Town (the “downtown” area that’s mostly dedicated to welcoming tourists), and their culture is leagues different from even the rest of Vietnam.
Do You Have to Book a Tour?
While it’s possible to “do” Sapa on your own, I wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll be forced to stay close to the touristy routes (like Cat Cat Village) and won’t experience the added benefit of learning directly from a local. During our two days, we were taught about indigo dye, tobacco leaves, traditional garments, courting ceremonies, rice plantations, and more. It’s what transformed Sapa from just another outdoors excursion to something truly memorable.
Most people choose to book tours ahead of time in Hanoi, which usually includes your roundtrip transportation to and from the capital. We went with Lily’s Travel Agency, a popular business located in the heart of Old Quarter (and conveniently right behind our hostel). Vietnam is known for scams when it comes to the tourist industry, so it’s important to do your due research before popping into an office and inquiring about their packages. It’s also common for knock-offs to sprout up the moment a company gets popular (Sinh Tourist especially), so double-checking the address is crucial. Lily’s is one of the less-expensive-but-still-high-class groups that offers a competitive rate for their Sapa packages. They charge $60 for 2 day/1 night tours and $75 for 3 day/2 night tours. This includes a roundtrip overnight bus transfer directly to Sapa Town, tour guides for your entire stay, night(s) in a homestay, all meals, coffee and tea, and as much happy water as you can drink (more on that below). It does not include drinks at restaurants or beer at the homestay.
You can also book directly with a minority group when you arrive in Sapa Town. This is supposedly the cheaper option and ensures that all of the cash you pay goes directly to supporting the local population. The biggest issue with this approach is that you don’t have an experienced, independent third-party source who can take into account all your needs and provide you with the best choice. You have to do the shopping around yourself—oh, and you’ll have to do it at 5 in the morning.
How Are the Trekking Conditions?
Sapa’s climate is a welcome change from the oppressive heat and humidity that cloaks most of Vietnam year-round. October is literally the “golden” time to visit, as it marks the beginning of the harvest season and most of the valleys are striped in green and gold. Most people will tell you that it’s “cold” throughout the year, although most SE Asians seem to regard anything below 70F as parka weather, so take that for what you will. I’d say it’s more accurate to describe the weather as similar to San Francisco; cool and manageable most of the time, hovering around the 60s-70s in warmer months and around the 50s during the winter. Yet unlike California, Sapa does see a lot of rain no matter the month, and it’s likely to sprinkle (or pour) sometime during your trip. Tuck away a plastic poncho in your daypack and you’ll be thanking yourself later.
The trekking itself is only difficult if you want it to be. You can tell your guide what you prefer, although if you’re part of a group, you’ll have to find a route that pleases everyone. Ours was set for about 12-15 km. The most challenging part of the trek is likely to be the terrain, rather than the elevation. It’s muddy. Like, really muddy. You’ll be rock-hopping across streams and tip-toeing along rice terraces (AKA giant puddles filled with rice plants). I completely ate it more times than I care to admit, and my camera even took a small dip in the mud at one point. It’s not the kind of journey you want to embark on without a solid pair of hiking shoes. If you’re cheap like we were, you can get by on trainers, but you’ll be all the more miserable for it. Oh, and be sure to check for leeches.
Where Should I Stay?
You have three choices for accommodation: hotel, hostel, or homestay. Choose the latter. It’s what really ties the whole experience together and elevates it above other nature excursions, like Halong Bay. After spending a long (and muddy) day adventuring around the hills, you arrive at your destination, likely the home of your guide’s cousin/sister/friend. We were given the afternoon off to hang out on the porch and just take in the slow pace of life around us, as kids trickled home from school and chickens danced around water buffalo. They served us hot tea and later provided us with dinner: sauteed morning glory, tomato tofu stir-fry, crispy spring rolls, and slices of pork. It was all washed down with the H’mong’s beverage of choice: happy water, also known as rice wine. They serve it as generously as they consume it. Our homestay mom was hugging the toilet by 10pm (“Don’t ever mix beer and liquor!” she told us at breakfast the next morning).
If you do end up choosing a homestay, make sure that you’re actually staying with a real family and not a glorified hostel. The rise in tourism over the years has lead to a handful of so-called homestays that are really just a collection of beds set aside for tourists.
It’s worth noting that the homes in these villages are much more akin to camping than they are to a traditional house. You’ll be sleeping on a mat in the attic, above a living room with a single lightbulb. It’s not the best for someone with arachnophobia (me), but at least they have mosquito nets. It’s all part of the experience, right?
How Do I Get There?
Due to its isolated location, options for getting to Sapa are limited. You have a choice between overnight train, overnight bus, and day bus. All take around 5-8 hours. The train is probably the most popular method taken by foreigners, as it offers the best chance at a good night’s rest. It’s also triple the price of the overnight bus (only $10-15), unless you’re taking the more luxurious Victoria Express, which clocks in at around $150, and is reserved for those staying at the Victoria Sapa Resort. Also take into account that if you do take the train, you’ll be dropped off in Lao Cai, and need to secure an hour transfer to Sapa Town. The overnight bus, on the other hand, drops you right in the center of town for a fraction of the price, but is considerably more uncomfortable and dangerous. The day bus is said to be the cheapest “safe” option of the bunch, but then you’re trading a day of trekking to spend an afternoon in a hostel or hotel, since it arrives too late in the afternoon to start your journey to one of the villages. It’s best to save this option for your journey back to Hanoi. It will leave around 4pm from Sapa Town on your last day.
Some people will tell you that Sapa has been “ruined” by tourism, and that the whole thing just feels like a tourist theme-park nowadays. I didn’t experience this at all, and I think it’s important to remember that Sapa is a huge place, with an endless variety of trekking and accommodation options available. If you book yourself a room in the first hotel you come across and stick to the villages close to Sapa Town, then sure, you’re going to have a few tour groups tailing you on your hikes. But if you book the right tour (again, the merits of using an independent agency) you can have the entire adventure mostly to yourself. We were in a group of 6 people and rarely came across other travelers, and I never felt like I was getting hustled or pressured to buy something (at least, not by our host family and guides). It’s nothing like, say, the village of Baisha (outside of Lijiang, China), where all of the local people have taken to peddling their culture as a tourist attraction in itself. The two days we spent in Sapa felt like one of the most authentic travel experiences of my life.
Overall, Sapa is a beautiful and unique destination that’s absolutely worth the stop if you ever find yourself in Vietnam. Truly, don’t miss Sapa.